Keeping Up Appearances

She has been living a lie, for five months now. Claude’s death was devastating. He was her great love. A great love in a great era. His death marked the end of that era. Claude was a gambling man, and when the stakes were high, how could he refuse? The thrill of it was in his blood. It was how he first made his wealth, his name. But it was not wealth. There was always a consequence to being labelled as ‘nouveau riche’. Whether it was being smirked at at parties or worse, left penniless after a risky investment, you were never safe. Lady Agnès faced the latter consequence. Their investments in Marseilles were sold, the guest rooms’ furniture gone. She was down to her last evening dress. Their Paris home was officially on the market. By next week, she and Jacqueline would start their new life. In a small cottage, Jacqueline would never find a suitable husband. For now though, she escapes the reality. Putting on her last supply of rouge, she will remain Lady Agnès.

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The years of 1871 to 1914 in France are what we know today as La belle époque. The era is written as a time of peace, prosperity and harmony. The era encompassed both the old ways of previous generations and the progression to modernity for the western world. France’s culture, art and scientific advances of the period reflected this transformation, as did its fashion.

For women, fashion of the period marked the final days where corsets were the norm. The corset of this period was the most restrictive however,  the corset went well below the hips to increase the emphasis of a women’s hour glass figure. The dresses of the time also reflected the transformation to modern times. Dresses more obviously showed off a woman’s curves and yet the dresses were still quite conservative. Dresses still went all the way down to the floor but were narrower than previous eras. The upper halves of day-time dresses were quite tight, resembling a three-piece suit with puffed sleeves at the shoulders and high collars.

Makeup was still quite conventional. It consisted of usually two materials; rouge for the lips and cheeks and charcoal for the eyelashes. It is no wonder that this period is titled based on nostalgia for the past, for though times were changing rapidly in this era, the old ways were still very much prominent.

I wrote the story of Agnès to reflect this era of conflicting forces; the struggle to preserve the old ways while trying to keep up with society’s changes. The era of La belle époque showed growth in the bourgeoisie class. Opposed to being born into wealth, many men of the time made their money through industry or trade. This notion was still very much frowned upon by the upper classes of society for the time. The unfortunate reality was that those who had made their own wealth, could also just as easily lose it through one ill-advised financial opportunity. Agnès’ story demonstrates that though today the era is looked back upon as an age of harmony, the rules of society were still very much governed by the rigidity of previous periods.

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